Kendra Williams Calhoun

“When I was in high school I had a teacher tell me when I applied for the University of Kentucky, ‘I don’t know why you’re applying there. No one from Harlan can get in there.’ The day that I got my acceptance letter, I went to the school and made copies and I hung it up on his door and said ‘look, I made it. I’m going.’”

Kendra Williams Calhoun, Unit Director, Harlan County Boys & Girls Club; Evarts, Kentucky: 

“Growing up, my father was in the military so my first year I lived in Alaska. He was stationed in Alaska and they brought me back to stay with my grandparents here. I went to school with at the University of Kentucky and as soon as I started talking they were like, ‘you are not from here, where are you from?’ But I love the town. 

My grandmother raised me for that year I stayed with them when I was an infant, and then my parents moved back. [My father] is a State Trooper and he doesn’t live here in Harlan anymore but he is a State Trooper over in Paintsville now. Before he was a State Trooper, he was a police officer for a different county and city, so I think I’ve grown accustomed to it now. As a child, you didn’t think, ‘hey, my dad is out here in these dangerous situations,’ but now that I’m older and I look back, you realize that it’s really a dangerous job. 

I wasn’t into the video games and stuff. I loved going outside and playing games with my cousins and my aunts. I was an outdoors person; I was a tomboy. I wanted to be outside with the boys playing in the dirt, riding bikes. I knew I needed to be home when the streetlights came on. I just really enjoyed playing outside with friends and family. Watching grandma and aunts cook, and learning how to do different things like that.

My mom, she is a very, very hard worker. She works for the county attorney here in town. She raised my brother and me—I have a younger brother, he just recently turned 20. Anything we needed, she worked and did whatever she needed to do to provide for us. We never needed or wanted for anything. She made sure we had it. Mom was more of the strict one of the family. Normally it would be reversed, but dad was more of the one playing jokes [on] us, more laid back. 

My grandma is an amazing woman. I love her. She is a real selfless person. She would do anything for anyone. To this day, she is still taking care of people. A lot of people will look at me and say, ‘hey, that’s Jackie’s granddaughter,’ because that’s how they know her throughout the community because she’s always doing so much for the community. She used to work for one of the local head starts, and then my grandfather had got really sick and had had a stroke so she had to stop working to take care of him. After he passed, we found out she had Lupus. She’s on the City Council, she’s on every council I can think of—she’s fighting for just anything that we need in the community! I love to help people, and I know that’s where I got it from because I would always go with her to sit with someone elderly if they needed someone to sit with, or [I’d] go to the grocery store or run errands or anything anyone needed. I’m grateful for that… I really am. 

[My grandfather] was [a coal miner]. He is no longer with us, but I can remember he would drive the trucks… I loved the trucks. He worked in the coalmines, but mainly I can remember him driving the trucks. I’m African American, and he wasn’t your typical [African American]. He would have on cowboy hats and the cowboy boots and he would be on the radio stations singing country songs! My grandparents, I just… I’m going to get teary eyed talking about them… I’m very grateful for them and just the lessons that they have taught me. I think that they have definitely played a huge role in how I see things in the world and who I am today.

[The saddest time in my life was] when my grandfather passed away. I was a freshman in high school, so I’m trying to think how old that would have made me! My parents were very active in my life, but I just was grandma and granddad’s baby. I would stay with them and especially when he became ill, I wouldn’t leave. I practically said, ‘hey mom, I’m going to live with grandma and grandpa,’ which was right next door. Although my father was in my life, my grandfather was a huge role model in my life, so that was probably the saddest time. It wasn’t the first time [I’d experienced death] but I think it definitely had the biggest impact on me.

My grandfather had heart disease and diabetes and he had to have one of his legs amputated. A lot of people would let that get them down, but not him. You could not stop him. I can remember him having a mini van and he would fix everything and he would roll his wheelchair up and he even created a thing to where he could slide it up in there and hook his wheelchair himself. He didn’t want anyone to help him. I can remember growing up I hated that van because there were a thousand flags on it and I thought, ‘this is so embarrassing.’ But now, I look back and when I think of that van I just smile and laugh. 

I can remember being in elementary school and I would always dread when we would have to go over things dealing with Black History Month because you know, when it would come time to read about stuff like that, I can remember teachers being like, ‘well, we’re going to let Kendra read this’ because they didn’t want anyone else to say the word ‘negro.’ I can remember times on the bus where people have been like, ‘oh well, we can’t sit with her, we can’t talk with her because she’s black.’ It never really fazed me because I would go home and my grandparents would be like, ‘well you know maybe they really don’t understand,’ and we would just move on, never let it bother us or get us down. 

I still think even in today’s society it’s all a matter of how you’re raised. Of course I can remember kids making remarks and things like that. I could have retaliated or something but I didn’t let it bother me because I knew my grandparents and parents had educated me on race and things like that. 

My high school days… I miss them! I definitely miss them. I played sports, I tried to stay as active as I could. Was a straight A student. Played basketball, did the dance team, volleyball… I just really liked school. I wish I could go back. I stayed busy! 

I went straight from Harlan to the University of Kentucky! Go Cats! Here, it’s a small community, everyone knows everyone so growing up, I didn’t have to deal with anything there. But I can remember going to UK and I felt like it was kind of different, just being in the atmosphere in Lexington. People that I would sit down and talk to would be, ‘this certain group, you don’t need to go here because they’re not too fond of blacks’ and stuff like that. I just think, you can go off of other people’s experiences and things like that so you kind of get a feel for yourself. Moving to Lexington was a huge transition. I can remember calling home and being excited because Wal-Mart was open 24/7, so, the fact that I could go to Wal-Mart at two o’clock in the morning to get something that I needed? I loved it!

I got a Bachelor’s in Family Science. I am [the first in my family to go to college]. I’m very proud! When I was in high school I had a teacher tell me when I applied for the University of Kentucky, ‘I don’t know why you’re applying there. No one from Harlan can get in there.’ The day that I got my acceptance letter, I went to the school and made copies and I hung it up on his door and said ‘look, I made it. I’m going.’

I would try to come home, at first, like every other weekend when I was a college student. Just [didn’t] have the money for that! But I did miss home. It was new for me so I liked being there. Just seeing the different things that they had to offer and exploring and branching out. 

I missed the closeness of everyone. When I was at UK I worked retail through college. Just the people… the people were different. When I would work there I would have customers come in the store and say, ‘you’re not from here, you’re too friendly!’ I was like, ‘no this isn’t just me, everyone is like this!’ After that moment I just took a step back to look and you know, everyone here, even if I walk outside and I don’t know someone, I can have a 30-minute conversation with him or her. So that was probably the biggest thing that I missed; the closeness and the friendliness of the people here. 

I definitely [missed home cooked food]! My grandma, hands down [is the best cook in the family]. I can remember growing up, every Sunday before we would go to church, we would have fried chicken and white rice and biscuits. Every time I would come home I would have her make me some collard greens or some fried cabbage or some beef stew or chili. Just some good, home cooked meals. 

I was one of those people that when I left, when I got to UK, I said, ‘I’m not going back to Harlan County. I like this. I’m not going back.’ When I graduated, I started looking for jobs and I saw the job posted for this [one] and I think that was the first time I had really thought about, ‘Hey, I want to go back home.’ I thought about when I grew up, and some of the things that teens and kids had to face growing up and how I felt like there weren’t people that I could go to and talk to. I just wanted to come back home and feel like I was making a difference, being a positive role model or bringing something positive to the kids here. I heard so many times in high school, ‘Oh you’ll never leave Harlan. You can’t leave Harlan.’ So [I wanted] just to be an example and show the kids, if you want to leave you can do whatever you put your mind to. You can do it. I just wanted to come back and mainly be a good role model for the kids here. I’m making a living in Harlan County.

I am the Unit Director here at the Harlan County Boys and Girls Club. The main thing is being a positive role model and helping kids in our community. Here in the facility, the membership number is 183 kids, but we go throughout the community so we probably serve around 2,000 different kids each year. We go into the schools and we teach a drug prevention program to all of the county schools as well as the independent schools. We go and we set up booths at the swapping meets, the Poke Sallet Festival, just basically trying to let people know of the different services that we have here. A lot of people know that we’re The Boys and Girls Club, but they don’t realize everything that we do as far as the homework with the kids and our feeding programs, Money Matters and the different programs we do. We try to do all of our programs around health and life skills, character development, fitness and education programs. 

The kids normally start coming in around 2:30 pm and we’re open until 6:00 pm so they know as soon they get here after school we do a thing called ‘Power Hour’ and we come in and we go ahead and take care of homework because a lot of the kids may not have people that can help them at home with homework, so we make sure it’s done. If they don’t have homework, we still do something educational with them for the first hour, and then after that it’s kind of like fair game for them to have fun and play in the game room and go outside and just relax, of course [while] being supervised by adults. We have a computer lab, an air hockey table, a pool table and we recently made a Lego table out of one of our old air hockey tables and the kids really enjoy that. We stay up to date with the game systems and the games that the kids want. [It is] just basically a good place where they can come and have fun in a positive place.

Poverty because of the lack of jobs [is the biggest problem in Appalachia]. [That] would be the biggest one that I see. I think working here and working with the families and seeing the families, that’s the biggest one. 

I’ve had families come in before whose mom and dad, neither are working because they can’t get jobs, just struggles of like homework and not being able to have the help or the parents aren’t educated to help with the homework and they may come in and see if we have extra food leftover for the day. You can really see a difference in the kids. We do a food program here at the club. One thing that, when I first started, little things you take for granted. I didn’t think maybe some of these kids weren’t getting meals at home. We partner a lot with Harlan Independent Schools. The test scores actually increased, their grades increased, because the kids were coming and we feed them a good meal and we give them snacks. That’s the greatest feeling.

I know one thing that I love about living here is the closeness and how I feel like the families here you can rely on different people to help you. We’re amazing. We’re probably the best people around. We’re kindhearted. My husband is from Louisville and he lives here with me now. He grew up in, they call it the West End; downtown, kind of in the Shively area, that’s where he’s from. He would come in and visit and the breaking point that made him decide “I want to live here”, we had come to visit one time and we were in Wal-Mart shopping and my kindergarten teacher came up and hugged me. We had a conversation and she was telling me how she followed me during college and everything that was going on and he was really amazed. One of the comments he made, he said, ‘if I was to run into my principal, they wouldn’t even know who I was.’ [He was impressed by] just the fact that these people really cared about you as a person, and wanted you to succeed. 

I lucked up. I really lucked up and was able to get a job and move back home. I think nowadays it’s hard to find jobs here and that’s sad because a lot of our people are leaving not because they want to leave, but because they can’t find jobs here. I don’t know [whether coal will come back]. I wish some of these kids could have the experiences of ‘I’m proud of my grandfather for being a coal miner,’ you know? I feel like a lot of the kids now, some of the kids ask, ‘well what does a coal miner really do?’ They don’t really know too much about it, and I wish that it could come back. 

Even if we get to the point where we see that the coal mines are not going to come back, I think as a community for whom coal mining was a living, [we need to] have more of an open mind to think of some other things to bring jobs here. I feel like, not like we’re stuck in our old ways, but that we’re kind of closed-minded and we just want our coal mines back and we’re not trying to think of what we can do to really build up our community. 

I think [drugs are an issue. Even growing up, it was a big thing, you know. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to come back to my hometown. My focus was actually substance abuse. I wanted to do something because it was such a big thing growing up that I wanted to be able to come back and help in those areas. I feel like it’s different from when I grew up, but I still think the problem is still there. My parent’s were very active in everything that I was doing. I stayed busy, so I didn’t have time [to try drugs]. I would see friends that would be like, ‘Oh, come on’ [and I would say], ‘No, I don’t have time for that.’ My parents made sure they knew what we were doing, and who we were with and [that we were] staying busy.

I do not like [stereotyping], but I think that everyone does it. I try really hard not to stereotype because everyone’s different. You can’t place someone in a certain stereotype. I’ve had people tell me before, ‘you’re trying to talk like a white girl, you don’t talk like you’re black.’ I didn’t know there was a difference! There’s a lot of stereotyping.

When I went to UK, people would ask, ‘do you have running water down there? Does either parent work? Do you all even have lights out there?’ Even had someone ask me one time if we had an outhouse to use the restroom. But, I think the biggest thing is like, ‘everyone’s hillbillies there.’ When I hear that I laugh and tell them, ‘Yes, I am a hillbilly. I’m a hillbilly and I’m proud!’ 

I think the happiest time would be… I have a two-year-old boy, would be when I had him. That would be the happiest. HIs name is Kyree. He’s two years old, so we’re going through the terrible twos right now, but he is just a big ball of joy.

I love to scrapbook. I really, really love to scrapbook. People like to make fun of me because I think I have a picture of every day [since] my little boy was born! I love going outside and taking pictures and making different scrapbooks to show. I may just go outside and take pictures of fall and be like, ‘look how beautiful it is here.’ I love being outside. I could walk around for hours just looking at the scenery. The scenery here is just beautiful. 

When it comes to building things and fixing things, it’s normally me! I think it just goes back to the way that you’re raised here. Being here in Harlan, you use the things and people around you to get by. Instead of having the new technology or whatever’s around, you make things. So, when you come across these people who are in the big cities, like for example my husband, he’s like, ‘I don’t know how to fix this.’ And I’m like, ‘oh all, we need is this. This will fix it, we don’t need to go out and buy that!’ It just goes back to the way that we’re raised here.

I would like to be remembered exactly like my grandma. Like someone who has made a difference in the community whether it’s doing stuff here with the kids or just leaving a positive impact and helping here in the community.”